Rutgers scandal shows ugly underbelly of college sports

Front cover of Jackie Robinson comic book (issue #5). Photo: Library of Congress, public domain

Two cultural moments converged this month in American sports that bear thinking about.

The first was the scandal that erupted around Rutgers college basketball coach Mike Rice, who was filmed physically, verbally and emotionally abusing his players.

The other was unveiling of the new film “42” about Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, opening professional baseball and American sport to non-whites.

Robinson helped to shift the national dialogue about race and human decency.

Here’s how these two moments connect.  In professional sports, players — black, white, male and female — now possess enough power and influence to protect their basic interests.

They have a seat at the table.  Their dignity, their financial security, their physical safety are all at least given reasonable shrift in negotiations.

But in college sports, we remain locked in a pre-1940s cultural bubble, where mostly white sports professionals like Coach Rice retain all the power and players are prohibited by the NCAA from retaining even the most basic legal or professional counsel.

The abuse that went on at Rutgers was allowed to continue not because college officials were complacent — though that’s true as well.

No, the main culprit here is a fundamental, systemic and institutionalized powerlessness on the part of those young men who were being abused.

They knew when those balls were being hurled at their bodies, when they were being kicked and punched and shoved, that there was literally no one with any authority whose primary job was to represent and protect their interests.

This is nothing new.  College sport has long been a shameful enterprise.

It is predicated on the idea that a mostly white community of university employees will enrich themselves fabulously, while a largely black cadre of players — along with often rural, poor white athletes — will play for free.

The lipstick on this pig is the pretense that these “student athletes” are receiving good educations (a fiction in most cases) or that a significant percentage of them have a shot at professional careers (a fiction in the vast majority of cases).

When Rice hurled those balls at those young men — when he blasted them with profanity and vicious homophobic slurs — he was acting out physically a much larger institutional system.

It is a system in which coaches and athletic directors and college presidents control everything.  Players, meanwhile, are powerless pawns, often subjected to astonishing physical risk and chronic head trauma.

Jackie Robinson shattered the color barrier.

One wonders when a student athlete will be empowered to shatter the college sports cabal that has disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of athletes while generating billions of dollars for the people who manipulate and exploit them.

One wonders when universities will begin to break with the shameful tradition of running a massive sports and media empire on the backs of poor, underprivileged and powerless young people.

So tonight when the NCAA men’s basketball championship game is played, I won’t be watching.  The system is too broken, too ugly, in much the way that professional baseball was shamefully broken before Robinson’s groundbreaking time.

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19 Comments on “Rutgers scandal shows ugly underbelly of college sports”

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  1. Jim Bullard says:

    I’d love to say I’m joining you in your boycott but I never watch any sport except golf anyway (and then only occasionally).

  2. mervel says:

    I agree Brian.

    This is so corrupt from the top down. Check out the salaries of the coaches tonight, both in the millions; per year, yet the average player tonight will not go pro, will not get a contract.

    Even from the pro perspective, the average pro football player plays 3 years, the average guy earns a 300 or 400K for those years, which is good, they also come out brain damaged and most don’t go on to any sort of career or life.

    The whole thing is pretty rotten. Baseball is a little better.

    The term “student athlete” is a legal construction first used by the NCAA in a law suite against them for anti-competitive practices and abusing athletes.

  3. mervel says:

    Start with the coaches and the Jock mentality which frankly in the US is abusive, sexist and oriented toward rape and bullying, which we see from these tapes of Rutgers and Stubenville. What those guys were doing is bad but not unheard of it is part of the culture of assholes.

  4. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    There isn’t going to be a Jackie Robinson moment in sports again because at the time Jackie Robinson broke into the Bigs it wasn’t ALL about money. What is sport today? Franchises get taxpayers to fund stadiums which become the property of the franchise to the tune of hundreds of million$ or billion$; the NCAA men’s tournament is wildly popular mostly because it has become a monthlong betting event; NASCAR is a combination of WWF wrestling soap opera story-line in the worlds fastest billboards for consumer products; and the NFL suckers people into supporting “local” teams by buying products with team logos even as they argued at the Supreme Court that the NFL was essentially just one corporation and not a bunch of associated individual teams. Even the Olympics which are billed as celebrations of individual and team athleticism are really more about getting the rubes around the world to fund the lavish lifestyle of bigwigs at the expense of billion$ in debt for any city or country suckered into hosting.

    Newsflash to those who have been sleeping for the last few decades – it’s all about the money. Everything is about money. It is particularly appropriate today, the day Maggie Thatcher died, that we should remember the modern world which people like Thatcher and Reagan ushered in has no place for common people except as unwitting pawns in games meant for their betters. Black or white, male or female, gay or straight the people at the top have nothing but contempt for ordinary people and anything they say to the contrary is simply lip service. Show me one of them who will give up their big salaries to help the team.

  5. The Original Larry says:

    That’s right, Reagan and Thatcher, responsible for all the ills of “modern” society, including college athletics. It’s one vast, right-wing conspiracy to keep the little man down. Don’t any of you have some original material?

  6. mervel says:

    LOL OL yeah I know how do you go from jerk jock mentality and NCAA corruption (a liberal institution if you want to get nasty about it) to Thatcher and Reagan? It is like ditto heads on the Left, it never ends.

    Lets face it most issues in the real world have NOTHING to do with Liberal or Conservative politics.

  7. oa says:

    KHL–Sports was all about the money in Jackie Robinson’s day, too. There just wasn’t as much then.

  8. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Right oa, it really is the greed that is the problem. As OL points out it isn’t a very original idea that greed and gluttony are very real problems — seems like I read about it in a book somewhere. And the idea of unleashing the Power of Greed wasn’t an original idea for Thatcher or Reagan, but they were the proponents of the ideas that lead us further along that path.

    Just to get OL’s blood boiling I’ll point out that if Reagan had embraced a few of Jimmy Carter’s excellent ideas (which were’t original to him, either) like being more thrifty and frugal, like using sensible solutions to problems such as putting on a sweater when you are cold – if Reagan had been more open-minded to those sort of sensible ideas we would be much better off today.

  9. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Sorry, “degree of greed.”

  10. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Mervel, do you think that political thought has no real world consequences in social and economic terms?

  11. Alan Gregory says:

    I stopped watching, and caring, for sports at all levels the day after my alma mater, Idaho State University, defeated UCLA in the NCAA tourney. Today, people get all wrapped up into big-time this and that and the reason why humans first played team sports – because it was fun – is long gone.

  12. Gary says:

    Years ago I coached a high school sport. Before I continue I will say I played sports in high school and college. I played B-ball against Jim Boeheim and football against Tom Coughlin. I gave up coaching after three years. Why, pressure from AD Director and parents to win. No one seemed to care about the positive experience I was trying to provide to these young boys. It was all about winning. My point is our problems start long before these young men enter college.

  13. Will Doolittle says:

    And yet … and yet …
    There is something more. Otherwise, why do so many of us watch? Why do so many of us care? The real crime is the corruption of what is amazing and beautiful — transcendent — in sport. Not to mention the thrill of it, and the glorying in competition. The corruption, not only of money but, as Gary talks about, of putting winning above sportsmanship, above balance (above time with family, academics, having fun), is why I’m glad to have two teenage daughters, because girls sports, at this point, tend to be less corrupted than boys.

  14. Paul says:

    Basketball is fun to watch. Especially pro games, those guys are amazing. I am sure it is fun to play also if you know what you are doing (I did not so it was not so much fun to play, plus I am too short). Deal with the problems and move on.

    Get kids more interested in skiing and biking too, they can do that till they die.

  15. Pete Klein says:

    If you want to fix college sports, first get rid of athletic scholarships. It is a misnomer and an oxymoron.
    Scholarships should only be for scholars.

  16. The Original Larry says:

    Jimmy Carter, who continues to be a good and decent person, was an abject failure as President. As President, he always struck me as someone who should have been careful what he wished for. His contributions to US – Iran relations have been well documented. Reagan’s and Thatcher’s responses to international bullying have also been well documented. There is a huge difference between decisive leadership and well-intentioned but ineffective temporizing.

  17. Lapsed Catholic says:

    How about D-III athletics programs being built on the backs of student loans? Isn’t that worse? Take St. Lawrence University, many local people don’t understand how important sports are to St. Lawrence’s existence. Something like 40% of the freshmen there are on sports teams.

    The most common way a St. Lawrence student hears about the school is contact through an assistant coach. It’s not uncommon for students to leave the school $50K inb debt. Isn’t maybe a little unethical to talk a 17 year old high schooler into taking out massive student loans so they can play sports at St. Lawrence? St. Lawrence’s coaches and recruiters lump scholarships and loans into a single term: “Aid”. Scholarships and loans are totally different, but to a 17 year old who hears they are getting a ton of “Aid” they sound like the same thing.

    That’s the

  18. Mervel says:


    No I understand it is important and I like talking about it also, witness my numerous blather on this board.

    However sometimes like on this issue, geesh, I just don’t think it has anything to do with the politics of Reagan versus Carter or Left versus Right. Those things to me are important in a glacial sense, but in many ways the real issues of our day to day life are simply not impacted.

  19. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    What am I supposed to say, Mervel? They don’t call me KHL for nothin’.

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